BOISE, Idaho — When Keita Bates-Diop squared up for the three-pointer, it felt like everything was falling into place for Ohio State.
Having trailed by 15 points just moments into the game, the fifth-seeded Buckeyes had fought back and claimed a second-half lead against No. 4 seed Gonzaga at Taco Bell Arena in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. A pair of Bates-Diop free throws broke a 62-all tie, and when Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell Jr. airballed a three-point attempt, Bates-Diop drained one from the left wing.
Right there, at that moment, Ohio State led by five points at 67-62 with 6:02 and the upset and comeback both looked in the offing.
“It felt like, we didn’t have it (closed out), but we were taking control of the game,” Bates-Diop said afterward.
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It was a feeling of euphoria that was short-lived. Gonzaga pushed the ball up the court and Norvell, clearly unfazed by his prior attempt, answered Bates-Diop with a three-pointer of his own despite suffocating defense from Ohio State sophomore Andre Wesson. And then when Bates-Diop missed a three late in the shot clock on Ohio State’s next possession, Gonzaga reclaimed the lead on a three-point play from Killian Tillie.
The Bulldogs had the lead and wouldn’t relinquish it again. Those two possessions started an 11-0 run that served as the final momentum swing for the night, and if Norvell delivered the first dagger it was Rui Hachimura who provided the final blow.
Hachimura, who was 4 for 24 from three for the season and hadn’t made one since he hit two against Creighton on Nov. 29, connected with 3:44 to play that made it a six-point Ohio State deficit.
The Buckeyes never were within a possession again.
“They made a couple really hard shots,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “(Hachimura) hadn’t made a three since (basically) December. Zach Norvell made a step-back with Andre on him. He made a hell of a shot. Those were crushing. We still had a chance if we could’ve done a few better things, but those threes, they just made a few more plays.”
Norvell finished with 28 points, tying Bates-Diop for game-high totals, and did it by going 6 for 11 from three. And yet, with six minutes to go, it was Ohio State’s game to lose – even if it didn’t last.
“We’re OK with (Hachimura) taking that three and we were OK with how we guarded Norvell,” Holtmann said. “Now, there’s other things in the course of the game we weren’t OK with, but you knew, you’re so in the moment. You know they’re at home, or whatever you want to call it, and they’re going to make a run. Are we going to be able to answer it? That’s what I was thinking in that moment.”
Bates-Diop would set the final score with a deep three at the buzzer. If not for that shot, Gonzaga would have closed the game on a 28-14 run.
The challenge was what Bates-Diop said he had hoped for in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s obviously tough, but that’s what you want in the tournament,” Bates-Diop said. “You don’t want a team to just go away. In the second round of the tournament they’re going to be good teams. They’re not just going to roll over and die. We’ve just got to fight a little bit better and they made the plays down the stretch.”